W hen Laos won its bid to host last month’s South-East Asian Games, China offered to help the tiny nation by building a gleaming new venue on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane. The facility included a “natatorium” for swimming and a stadium for soccer. But for the Laotian government, such generosity would not come cheaply.
China’s Suzhou Industrial Park Overseas Investment Co was promised a 50-year lease on 1,600 hectares of land on the outskirts of the capital in return for building the venue. But an exceptional public backlash, fuelled by news that the Chinese intended to bring in 3,000 labourers to do the job, forced the government to cut the size of the concession to 200 hectares and promise to find extra land elsewhere to compensate for the loss.
The episode illustrates both the gravitational pull exerted by China’s economic and strategic might, drawing the nations of continental south-east Asia into a tighter orbit, and the counterveiling tensions that are becoming apparent as a result. Economic and diplomatic imperatives are starting to clash with nationalist fears of becoming – in many cases not for the first time – satellites of Beijing.